World Policy Institute – Russia: How Perceptions Shape Reality

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The Post-Transitional Russian Identity:


Russia: How Perceptions Shape Reality
A panel discussion with (in alphabetical order)

James Collins, Former US Ambassador to the Russian Federation 1997-2001

Masha Gessen, Journalist (US News and World, Bolshoi Gorod)

* A Ranking Bush administration official.

Please note: this official is actively involved in policy issues and therefore requested their comments not be for attribution.

Moderated by Nina L. Khrushcheva (New School University)

On December 1, 2004, Columbia University hosted “Russia: How Perceptions Shape Reality,” part of an on-going series of discussions presented by the The Post-Transitional Russian Identity project. The primary focus of the discussion was on how the West perceives Russia. Are these perceptions correct? And how do they affect the United States-Russia relationship, both in the US acting and Russia reacting based on perceptions of the other.

The panel is part of the project on the New Post-Transitional Russian Identity, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and organized jointly by the New Scholl University, The World Policy Institute, and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

The panel featured James Collins, former US ambassador to the Russian Federation, 1997-2001; Masha Gessen, journalist, who has written for publications including US News and World Report and Bolshoi Gorod, (Moscow’s leading alternative newspaper); and an official from the current Bush administration, involved in policy planning, who requested their remarks not be for attribution.

Discussion Summary

(for a full transcript of this event, please click here)

James Collins began his remarks by concentrating on three points he believed were central both to Russia’s development and Russian-US relations. He felt that these points “have a remarkable capacity to endure” despite many changes both in perception and reality.

Forming a post-Soviet identity has been the first challenge for Russia. With the loss of their Soviet identity, the legitimacy of state-structures also disappeared. “You had a society that was cast adrift, in essence,” Collins said. One success he cited of the Yelstin era was the establishment of the presidency and the idea that legitimate power comes from the people.

Establishment of a market economy has also been a major challenge which has shaped post-Soviet Russia. Collins felt that there had been a remarkable amount of progress made in establishing the institutions of the market economy; with concepts such as ownership and private property becoming a recognized part of society. Collins stressed the need for Russia to develop their own form of the market economy, rather than continuing attempts at trying to take on a pre-formed western model. He felt that this remains a central challenge to Russia today.

A second point which Collins felt was important to make, yet one that was seldom discussed, was that in the later 1990’s, both nations had weakened presidents in their second terms. This affected how the relationship developed and shaped reactions to decisive events such as the 1998 banking crisis in Russia, and the US-led response to events in Kosovo. Since both presidents were weakened, they did not drive public policy, rather they were forced to react to events. This kept the US-Russia relationship from developing in a strategic manner.

That bureaucracies do not respond well to revolutionary change proved to be a final hindrance in the development of the US-Russia relationship. Collins felt that the slow-moving nature of bureaucracy kept policy several years behind the actual events on the ground. Collins also said that the US policy tends to be based on ‘snapshots’, events at a given time, rather than being based on a developing process. This, again, kept policy from evolving at a steady pace and in response to what was happening in real-time.

The Bush administration official spoke next; the following is a summation of their remarks.

While the United States and Russia have developed a partnership, it is not yet a strategic partnership, which has been the administration’s goal. There have been several hindrances to establishing a true strategic partnership, including lingering Cold War mindsets in both capitals, along with questions on where Russia is going domestically and in terms of its relationships with its neighbors.

Regarding Ukraine (the November 2004 presidential elections which were widely viewed as fraudulent), there has been concern over the Russian approach to the recent electoral process that Russia is trying to exert an amount of control over the outcome. We have questioned the level of their involvement and will continue to monitor the next round (the December presidential election re-run). We must realize that Russia is heavily invested in the region and that this should not be viewed as necessarily a negative thing. Russia can be viewed as trying to make a profit with their investments; therefore their investments should not be viewed as a zero-sum issue where they are in competition with the West.

The United States should continue to make our concerns known to Russia, and try to influence it’s grown and development along a democratic path. Since Russia is no longer dependant on the IMF or other international lending agencies, this avenue of direct influence is limited. However, the strong personal relationship between Presidents Bush and Putin, along with Condolezza Rice’s appointment as Secretary of State, should provide a method for the United States to build on the US-Russia partnership.

Masha Gessen is a vocal critic of the policies of President Vladimir Putin. She used her remarks to respond to the two previous presentations and to express some of her own doubts about the veracity of some of the more commonly held perceptions about Russia and Putin; particularly that he is a strong leader who has brought stability to Russia.

She said that since 2000, there has been an increase in crime and insecurity in Russia, which runs counter to established perceptions that Putin has brought order out of the chaos of the late-Yeltsin era. The terrorist attack in Beslan was the most pronounced example of how this perception has turned out not to be true. Gessen also talked about the role corruption has played in the growth of crime and terror.

The Yukos case (the arrest of Yukos oil company head Mikhail Khodorkhovsky on charges of tax-evasion) has pointed to both insecurity in the economy and a growing desire on the part of the government to interfere with private business. She felt the message of the Yukos case was that companies should not take advantage of legal tax loopholes and would be punished if they did. It also showed that the government did not believe in a company’s right to make a profit.

A run on a Russian banks over the summer, based on an internet rumor that the several were about to be ‘blacklisted’, according to Gessen, points to a growing insecurity in the public at large over the Russian economy. She said this is a result both of people’s fears and in the message sent by the Yukos case.

Gessen ended her remarks on the Ukrainian election. Putin tried to influence the election, but the Ukrainian media was not as complaint as the Russian media has been. Internal memos, set out by Russian advisors, were routinely leaked and printed by the Ukrainian media. After Viktor Yanukovych failed to win in the first round, several of Putin’s advisors stepped forward to distance themselves from his actions. Gessen said that this action, along with the leaking of the memos, show that Putin, in reality, is a weakened leader who depends on his stature abroad to maintain his strong image at home.

This summary was prepared by Edward Hancox, research associate with the New Post-Transition Russian Identity project.

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